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March 15, 2018
Legislation would increase county court civil threshold

The maximum value of civil cases that could be handled in county courts would go from $15,000 to $50,000 in bills introduced in the House and Senate.

The House Subcommittee on Judicial Appropriations and the Senate Judiciary Committee both approved similar bills in February, although the Senate bill also included judicial certifications for new judges and language allowing Supreme Court justices who don’t live in Tallahassee to designate a working office at a circuit court or district court of appeal.

The measures passed unanimously in both committees.

“This is an area that has not been updated since the mid-90s. We think it’s time,” Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, the sponsor of the Senate bill, said of the increase in county court jurisdiction.

The proposals did raise some concerns from the court system. Mark Mahon, chief judge of the Fourth Circuit, told the House subcommittee that the filing fee for county court cases is $300 while it’s $400 for civil cases. Further, the fees are divided up differently, with part of the circuit filing fee going to a trust fund that helps finance the courts.

If the filing fee stays the same for the new cases picked up by the county courts under the bill, the court system would lose $4.3 million to that trust fund and that would eventually rise to more than $5 million, Mahon said. He said the problem could be fixed by applying the circuit filing fee to county court cases worth between $15,000 and $50,000.

“We hope that would be addressed so it doesn’t create a shortfall in the trust fund,” Mahon said. “We need the money. This would mean a very minor change.”

The judge was asked if the court system had any opinion about raising the jurisdictional amount for the county courts. He replied: “We recognize that’s strictly within the purview of the Legislature to make that change and we have no position.”

In the Senate, Brandes noted his bill originally called for raising the civil limit for county court cases to $100,000. But he introduced an amendment — which was approved by the committee — setting the limit at $50,000, providing for more new judges than certified by the Supreme Court, and allowing Supreme Court justices to have offices outside Tallahassee.

The amendment provided for the two new Ninth Circuit judges and two Hillsborough County judges asked for by the Supreme Court, and also provided for one additional county court judge each in Colombia, Flagler, and Citrus counties, none of which were sought by the court. The new judges in Columbia, Flagler, and Citrus also were included in a separate certification bill, CS/SB 1396, that was on the Senate Appropriations Committee’s agenda for March 2, after this News went to press.

The amendment did not cut any of those 13 judgeships as proposed by the court. In response to a question from Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Ft. Lauderdale, Brandes said the extra county court judges would be needed to handle the higher caseload if the county court jurisdiction is raised.

The bill also provided that a Supreme Court justice who did not live permanently in Tallahassee could choose to have a full-time office at a circuit or DCA courthouse.

“The intent here is to allow more judges to look at applying for the Supreme Court,” Brandes explained.

William Large, representing the Florida Justice Reform Institute, testified at both committee meetings against raising the county court jurisdiction. He said change would generate a larger number of appeals to circuit courts which don’t have the staff to handle and there likely would be less uniformity among appellate decisions since those cases would be handled by 20 separate circuits rather than five DCAs.

The Senate bill, CS/SB 1384, next goes to the Appropriations Committee. The House counterpart, HB 7061, went to the Judiciary Committee where it passed 15-0 on February 21 and was on the House special order calendar for March 2, after this News went to press.

[Revised: 03-20-2018]